Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Race For Paris

by Meg Waite Clayton
Harper     2015
336 pages    
 Historical Fiction

Books about World War II seem to be ubiquitous in 2015. My book club read All the Light We Cannot See earlier this year, but I have pretty much resisted reading any of the many other books until Clayton's agent sent me The Race for Paris

Jane is a journalist for a Nashville TN newspaper. She meets Olivia (Liv), a photographer for her husband's New York newspaper,  at a hospital in France shortly after the Normandy invasion. They have been stuck reporting from the hospital for quite some time and have been denied access to the forward movement of the troops because of military regulations and gender barriers. When they meet up with Fletcher, a British photojournalist, they take matters into their own hands, jump into his jeep, and race the allied troops toward the liberation of Paris.
Worried about exposing themselves to the MPs that are tracking them, Jane and Liv send out their articles and photographs anonymously or under Fletcher's name as they move relentlessly forward keeping pace with the troops. Jane muses about why they were putting themselves so prominently into harm's way: "a chance at immortality when mortality had you by the throat." They see it all and report on it all. Liv takes extraordinary risks to catch the action with her camera while Jane types up her stories on a portable typewriter. Along the way, they both fall for Fletcher, who always is seeking to protect them—even when they don't want to be protected. The three bond in a powerful way that sustains them and reverberates throughout the rest of their lives.

The Race for Paris is filled with relentless action that is vividly represented in the text. For example, Jane reports: "Liv moved into the valley to better photograph the fleeing Germans, and because she did, Fletcher and I did as well. We went down toward the confetti of paper and clothing and supplies, medical paraphernalia and food packages. The twisted metal of abandoned vehicles. Blackened trees. Well-creased letters stuck in the mud, and frayed photographs of wives, of children, of parents and siblings, of sisters and brothers. Sprawling tangles of hooves and necks and manes and bleeding horseflesh, and corpses." At the same time that they are reporting on the action, Jane poignantly reflects: "I wanted to be in a place where the sun always shone and the world was quiet, no gunshots in the distance, no stench of death."
American Reporters including Kirkpatrick and Miller

Clayton says that she spent years researching the women reporters and photographers of World War II, including Margaret Burke White, Helen Kirkpatrick, and Lee Miller. At the heading of each chapter, there is a quote from a war reporter or photographer, and the text is peppered with references to other famous wartime personalities, including Ernie Pyle and Earnest Hemingway. It is obvious that Clayton took enormous care with the historical accuracy of the novel. For the most part, the plot moves along, with some scenes breathtakingly compelling. I wanted the climax of the book to occur about 50 pages before if actually happened, but as Liv becomes more and more reckless in her photography, I knew that something tragic was about to happen—and then it did.

The Race for Paris is not a beach read. It is designed to appeal to the World War II historical reader as well as the reader interested in women's rights and women's history. I am none of those people, but I was completely captivated by the story and the charm of the characters. I can only imagine how consumed Clayton must have been as she researched and wrote this most compelling novel. I recommend it. The Race for Paris has already appeared on several "Best Books" lists including the BBC and Bookreporter.

Meg Waite Clayton's website.
A review in Bookreporter.
An article from the BBC website about American women reporters during WW2.

Monday, July 20, 2015

From Bruges with Love

by Pieter Aspe
translated by Brian Doyle
Open Road Media     2015
336 pages     Mystery

You might call From Bruges with Love a police procedural, but the policeman, Inspector Pieter Van In, solves crimes by his gut instinct rather than from "police procedures,"  and he runs into constant trouble for his efforts. This is the third of Aspe's mysteries in this series to be translated into English, and the first that I have read, but from the reviews I read, Van In seems always to be going to extremes to solve the crimes.

As mysteries go, From Bruges with Love has a lot of twists and turns, made a bit difficult because of the number of characters and their unfamiliar names. However, as a resident of the Dutch community of Kalamazoo, I am pretty familiar with names beginning with Van. The hardest was Van In because I kept reading it with a small "i" as in Van in and putting the preposition into the sentence.

The plot hinges around a piece of property at the outskirts of the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. A family has just bought the farm property, and in the midst of the remodel, a skeleton is unearthed in the vacant field. Van In is called in as is his wife, Hannelore (isn't that a gorgeous name), who is the deputy prosecutor. Van In, in what appears to be his inimitable style, bungles his way through the solution to the murder—and then the second murder—getting a subordinate into grave danger and exposing a sordid sex ring involving people in high places in Bruges politics and society, to the dismay of the police commissioner. 

I really enjoyed the variety of characters, all deftly crafted. The relationship between Hannelore and Van In is also delightful, as she tries to reform the alcoholic, overweight inspector. It is easy to see why this is a very popular series. Publishers Weekly notes that the series has sold more than a million copies in Europe alone.

Some of the translation is a hoot. Here is a sample: "a stationary sea of people blocking access to Blinde Ezel Street like a herd of dull-witted cattle" and "Food and drink was the cheapest form of corruption in Flanders."  

 Here is one of the things that I love about murder mysteries. They take you to places that you might not visit in real life. I have never visited Bruges, but we drove through Belgium about 40 years ago, watching a life chess match in the square of Brussels—about as exciting as you can imagine. We also spent the night in Mons, Belgium, which we dearly loved. So, to get the feel of Bruges, which is in the part of Belgium called Flanders, I watched the 2000  movie  In Bruges for a second time. It starred Colin Farrell, Brendon Gleason, and Ralph Fiennes.  You really get a feel for the city from this movie, so I would suggest that you get the movie on Netflix before you begin the book. 

The review in Publisher's Weekly.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The New Class Conflict

by Joel Kotkin
Telos Press     2014
215 pages     Nonfiction

Thell, my husband, heard Joel Kotkin speak at a community development meeting a few months ago, and he purchased Kotkin's newest book, The New Class Conflict, for us to read for our morning reading time. You must know this about Thell; he loves statistics, and he only reads nonfiction. He felt totally justified on both counts with this book. 

Kotkin is a professor and an authority on global, economic, political, and social trends, and the trends he outlines in The New Class Conflict don't look good for those of us who consider ourselves middle class Americans. He describes a new class order that leaves many of us concerned about our own welfare and the welfare of our children. He says that in the past the concept of upward mobility was not only possible but was a normal aspiration. "In contrast to the norms of the past, most Americans do not feel that their children will do better than themselves. In 2013, a majority of Americans expected life to get worse by 2050, almost three times as many as those who thought things would get better."

He names the class divisions he sees emerging in American society using feudal terminology, including oligarchy—the wealthiest people in the country; the clerisy—the influential people in the country, including the media, government workers, and academics, the yeomanry—those who work and strive (this used to be the middle class) and the serfs (the service class). The lack of home ownership is, to Kotkin, the beginning of the disintegration of the middle class as they are forced into smaller spaces in large cities. Home ownership has always been the keystone of the middle class, and he worries that the middle class is being completely hollowed out.  At first look, this is a very pessimistic analysis of life in the United States.

 The reviewer in the USA Today says: "Kotkin is not as pessimistic as this summary suggests. He thinks that America has a vast latent capacity to adapt, and to change the rules democratically, as we've done in the past. But, he says, 'the most fundamental challenge facing the U.S. is the growing disenfranchisement of the middle and working class from the benefits of economic activity.'" He concludes that the middle class (what he calls the yeomanry) needs to have power returned to it. This may be at the expense of the uppermost strata of American society, who currently are those groups who are doing fine.

The issue is very complex, and Kotkin's analysis is also complex. Sometimes Thell and I had to read things over several times before it made sense to us. One of the hindrances to our totally comprehending what he was conveying is that he names all his sources within the text. Sometimes this will be the names of several sources per paragraph. We found that detail of the document quite confusing, although we acknowledge that he is comprehensive in his sources.

As parents of several millennials, the issues Kotkin presents related to their share of the American dream is quite disturbing. Yet, we know that what he is saying is true. For some of our children, home ownership is beyond their reach. Yet their sensibilities are middle class, and we continue to want the best for them. Kotkin offers very little in the way of advice; his job is to appraise the population of the dangers present in the current state of our American social order. We found his analysis quite disturbing.

The review in the USA Today.
Joel Kotkin's website.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Somebody I Used to Know

by David Bell
New American Library    2015
432 pages     Mystery

Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott)

These words kept coursing through my brain while I was reading Somebody I Used to Know by David Bell, which is a taut, roller coaster ride of a novel. Written in the first person, the protagonist, Nick, is a mild-mannered social worker in an Ohio community—the same Ohio community where he went to college. For 20 years, he has mourned the loss of a first love, Marissa, who died in a fire in a student apartment house. Suddenly, one day, he sees someone who looks very much like her at the grocery store. When he tries to speak to the girl, she runs away, and later is found dead in a motel room with Nick's address and phone number in her pocket.  As Nick and a police officer friend probe the girl's death, they are led into a web of lies and deception, until, at last, the truth comes out and Nick finds closure.

Bell's novel is taut and moves rapidly—one of those books you can't put down until you figure out what happened, although the obsessive mystery reader can see the clues as they are presented and as Nick chases them down. Much of the mystery has to do with the mistakes young adults make. I couldn't help but think about the concept of consequence, and how it is the last thing to develop in the human brain. However, in the case of this novel, some of the consequence comes from adults trying to protect their children. 

I am not a big fan of "lost love", especially of love lost for twenty years, but I willingly suspended my disbelief for the sake of the novel. It's not that Nick is a wimp, but please Nick—move on! Of course, if he had moved on, he never would have solved the mysteries, and I wouldn't have spent hours lost in his story.

I can recommend Somebody I Used to Know as a great summer read. David Bell is a university professor as well as a prolific author. He has several other novels that are probably worth looking into.
David Bell website.                                   

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Anti-cancer Diet

by David Khayat
W.W. Norton     2015
274 pages      Nonfiction/Health

Originally published in France in 2010, The Anti-cancer Diet by Dr. David Khayat, is newly translated into English for American audiences. A well known oncologist, Khayat has created an incredible "everything you need to know" food guide to help adults from contracting cancer. 

Cancer is the leading cause of mortality in adults in the world. More than 585,000 Americans die of cancer yearly. Staggering figures. Until I read this book, I knew that by not smoking, I was probably keeping myself from lung cancer, but I had really no idea what the possible effects of the foods I ate could have on my predisposition toward cancer. The book contains many charts to explain foods, ingredients, vitamins, supplements, and just about everything that goes into a person's mouth. Each food is analyzed for its possible contribution to cancer. I was pleased to see that red wine has Resveratrol, a substance that has anticancer properties.

I am always quite amazed that once you are aware of something—in this case preventing cancer—everywhere you look you find information on the topic. This morning in the Google News, there was an article from the Globe and Mail about citrus fruit consumption and skin cancer. This is something mentioned by Khayat. And then, just as i was eating a leftover piece of grilled salmon on my salad, I read that grilling may be dangerous and eating salmon is problematic. Couldn't finish my lunch!

Khayat doesn't expect for his book to be treated simply as a diet plan, and he creates no daily eating guide, like many diet books. His goal is to raise awareness and caution consumers about  the foods that we eat. He also adds the kind of sane advice that we have heard many times: don't smoke, eat a varied diet; vary how you cook your food, eat products that are made by hand, are locally produced, and farmed by sustainable methods; and find your energy balance—which includes getting exercise. 

The Anti-Cancer Diet is a valuable tool for people who are concerned about their health and wellbeing. It will stay on my cookbook shelf. I really appreciated receiving it from the publicist.